Why You Believe in Superstitions—Even Though You Know They’re Not True

Your brain is playing a trick on you.

black-cat-outdoors
Photo by David De Lossy/Getty Images

Whether you’re wary of Friday the 13th or you have a lucky pair of socks you throw on for important meetings, even the most rational person can sometimes believe in a seemingly silly superstition. You know the belief is untrue (no, the socks won’t actually ensure that you get the promotion), but your superstition still influences your thoughts and behavior. New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has an explanation: it seems your brain is unable to reverse that irrational thinking.

Associate professor Jane Risen, who led the university study, explained that the brain has two processes when it comes to irrational thought. The brain first has to process the thought, and then separately has to correct it. The correction process is termed “acquiescence,” and it doesn’t automatically follow the detection of an irrational belief. The findings will be published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Review.

Given this insight into cognitive function, it makes sense why even the smartest, most logical adults might still believe in a bit of magic.

“Even when the conditions are all perfect for detecting an error—when people have the ability and motivation to be rational and when the context draws attention to the error—the magical intuition may still prevail,” Risen said in a statement.

The research also identifies the situations where the brain “acquiesces,” and gives into intuition rather than rationality. The study cites an example of a chain letter, one we’ve probably all received prompting us to forward along to friends if we don’t want years of bad luck. In this situation, “the costs of ignoring rationality are low relative to the costs of ignoring intuition,” so even though you know you’ll probably be safe if you just delete the letter, you may still forward along.

In addition, “special situations” may cause your brain to acquiesce and succumb to superstition. As Risen explained in an email: “You may know that watching the game from a certain seat in your living room can’t affect the game, but still feel like things are more likely to go well if you do. If you have the chance to watch a really important game somewhere else with friends, you may come up with reasons why you prefer to stay at home this time.”

Now you know why you’re a tiny bit reluctant to leave your apartment on Friday the 13th